I’ve been told being a wedding planner sounds like a very glamorous job. I often respond by reminding the question-asker that I’m not the one sipping champagne and enjoying a decadent meal with my best friends. I’m the one in the back carrying a binder and probably about a dozen other items so that the show can go on.
I think the image many have in their mind is of Jennifer Lopez in the 2001 movie of the same name. With that in mind, before we go on I should dispel a few myths about this profession. No, I do not wear a headset (although there are certainly some event planners who choose to!). No, I do not carry Evian spray in a tool belt under my fitted blazer. And, no, I’ve never fallen in love with one of my grooms!
Being a wedding planner may not be “as seen on tv” or glamorous in the traditional sense, but it certainly is a job I love. I’m eager to share some ways to assess whether it’s a career path that is the right fit for you and, if so, provide some ideas on how best to pursue it!
Qualities of a Great Wedding Planner
Each year I usually have half a dozen young people approach me to ask to pick my brain on my career path. High School or College students typically want to know what my major was in college to gain all the skills I needed in this industry. Others have recently planned their own wedding and feel they’ve found their passion and are eager to pursue it. Still others may be toiling away at a career in a completely unrelated field and are looking for a way to feel more fulfilled.
While being a wedding planner may sound like a dream profession, and for some it is, you need to be sure that you are cut from the right cloth to really be successful in this industry. I’ve included a few key traits that most of the well-established wedding planners I know carry:
This is an easy one. Most of the resumes I receive talk a lot about organizational skills. A successful wedding planner is often juggling multiple facets of their clients’ events at a time–let alone multiple clients at different phases of their planning processes. A great wedding planner has systems in place to keep track of to do lists and deadlines for each client so that every one of your clients feels like they have your full attention. My favorite “stay organized” tip is to plan out the following day’s list the evening before. I make sure the top 3 most urgent tasks are on top so I can tackle those before dealing with anything else that can wait and make sure to confirm all of the following day’s meetings the day before.
Confusion is not an option in wedding planning. Planners have to effectively communicate with dozens of individuals per event. Your emails should be able to convey as much detail as possible in a clear and concise fashion, but also understanding what level of formality your client or their vendor(s) expect. An email to a client with whom you get along famously might include lots of exclamation points and smiley faces–“can’t wait for next week!!!”–while an email to a hotel sales consultant might be more professional–”please remove 3 seats from Table 14 for the Smith/Johnson wedding this Saturday, August 10th”.
Like it or not, weddings come with a lot of opinions. At some point during every event, a wedding planner will likely need to play middle man between two differing ones, or to provide negative feedback when a client feels upset. I often think of it as being a funnel. You take in all sorts of noise and big opinions mixed with stress and worry, and condense it down to what needs to be passed along, without causing the other party to become upset. Adding fuel to the fire by directly passing along anger and frustration will only make the overall situation worse.
While not necessarily required, it is helpful to have a great memory. Not only does this come in handy when recalling quick conversations you may have had with a client that you need to draw from on wedding day, but also in reinforcing the feeling that each client is your only client (despite knowing that not to be the case). You want to make your client feel that you are listening to everything they have to say and will not need to be told twice. This helps provide peace of mind in knowing that you will be able to be a proxy on wedding day, and that the bride(s) and/or groom(s) do not have to keep their checklist running in their heads on one of the most important days of their lives.
Notice the traits I did not include, like “amazing design eye” or “great at picking out a color scheme”. While those are great to have in addition to the above, they don’t really help in the logistical side of things. If you have incredible style that does not necessarily mean you will be able to effectively plan a large-scale celebration and execute it in a seamless way.
Do You Need Wedding Planner Certification?
I am often asked whether becoming a certified wedding planner is an important first step. It can be a wonderful way to gain knowledge about the industry, though it does not replace first-hand experience.
If you feel that certification is right for you, be sure you are signing up for a well-recognized program. My recommendations would be the Associate of Bridal Consultants’ (ABC) Professional Wedding Planner program or a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) program which you can take through a meeting planners organization like MPI or PCMA. The curriculum, which can range from $750-$1,500+ should cover everything from effective client communication to how to structure proposals to learning about all the event world terminology. It is helpful (and sometimes required) to have some background in the industry for perspective as you embark on the certification process.
If becoming certified is not the best choice for you, there are certainly many ways to gain this type of knowledge through experience. Some wedding planners offer internships or assistant jobs where you can see what a wedding day is truly like in the “back of the house”. If you don’t have access to apprentice under another wedding planner, there are many fields related to wedding planning that can provide invaluable knowledge and experience to prospective planners.
Starting a Wedding Planning Business
Ok, so you have determined you are the right personality type to thrive in the wedding world, you have gained valuable experience by working with another wedding planner or in a related field, and now you are ready to start your own business. What is next?
Open Your Doors
Thankfully, the startup costs are fairly minimal for starting a Wedding Planning company as compared with many other businesses. All you need is yourself–and a website! The first step will be choosing a name for your business. Many decide to do business under their own name (like Jane Smith Events). If you know for certain you will never wish to hire employees to work under you, this is a great option. If you think you may want to build a team to also produce weddings, you may want to consider choosing a name that does not have your name in it, to create a little separation between you as a person and the company. Then future potential clients won’t feel disappointed to not have you, personally, working on their wedding when your employee, Mary Baker, can do the job just as well!
Build a Web Presence
After you’ve chosen your business name and filed for the required licenses it’s time to get your name out into the world. Start an Instagram and Facebook account under your business name at minimum, and you may want to also consider Snapchat, Twitter, and Pinterest. It’s a good idea to claim everything you can in your name and as you go along you’ll figure out what your clientele is following or not.
When it comes to the website, if you have some capital (likely your personal owner’s equity) you could hire a designer to create a website for you. If you are working from a tight budget, start with a template website that you can create via Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, or WordPress–depending on your tech know-how. Ensure that even if you hire a professional to design the site, that it is done on a platform that is easy for you to understand and make updates to on your own. You don’t want to have to rely on (or pay for) a designer to make photo or content updates in a timely fashion.
Pick a Place to Meet
Now, where should you meet your future clients? I would not recommend going right out and leasing a big office. Having a lot of overhead before you have your first client is not smart business sense. Instead, choose a free or inexpensive public space where you can meet clients that fits with the style of your ideal client. Are you hoping to be hired by hipster, laid back, artsy types? Maybe the local coffee shop seated on mid-century modern couches is right for you. Are you trying to attract the high-end luxury bride? Perhaps meeting in the lobby of a 5-star hotel is a better feel. Get creative, and make sure it’s someplace where you can count on finding a seat in a quiet corner.
When it comes to hiring employees, this is another place that I would recommend waiting on until you have more of an established business. Plan to do most of the heavy lifting (literal and figurative–ha!) for your new clients yourself at least in your first year. If you need additional assistance on the day of weddings, plan to hire contractors who are going to work for you from time to time. Do make sure you understand how to determine if your hires should legally be classified as a contractor so that you don’t get dinged by the IRS! There is a lot of gray area, so consulting a professional would be the best bet.
Decide What Services to Offer
Now comes the most difficult part–what services should you offer and what should you charge for those services? There are no one-size-fits-all answers to these questions. When it comes to your services, be sure you are offering services to your potential clients that will allow you to provide them with the best experience possible. Perhaps you feel great about creating a timeline, communicating with vendors, and executing a flawless wedding day but aren’t so sure you have a good handle on the hottest new venues or a good understanding of what kind of budget a client can expect. Start with offering coordination services (some call it “month of” coordination, but I urge you to take the words “day of” out of your vocabulary as it really undervalues ALL the preparation one has to do in advance of wedding day to provide great service in this arena) and then expand to partial or full planning services once you feel like you have enough experience to be an asset to your clients. If you spent years in the hotel world and know the ins and outs of vendor selection, budgeting, and project management timelines there is absolutely no reason to wait to include these services. Go for it!
Price Your Services
The pricing question is one that even seasoned wedding planners struggle with. You do not want to price yourself too low and undercut the market…or too high that you are not taking into account your “newbie” status. My recommendation would be to spend some time reviewing the websites of other wedding planners in your market that you know and admire. If they don’t have full pricing online they may have starting rates. Even call hotels or other vendors to see if they have a sense of what wedding planners in your area charge for different services. I would recommend against calling or emailing wedding planners pretending to be a bride. You want to be sure you are entering the wedding industry on a good foot, and if you are found it it can leave a bad taste in the mouths of those you might be working with often.
Landing Your First Clients
After you have gained some experience and officially opened your doors for business, you are (finally!) ready to take on your first clients. Except for one problem: as a new wedding planner with no experience, no one wants to book you.
It’s a bit of a catch-22. Clients won’t want to book with you unless you have a portfolio to show them that you know what you’re doing. (Would you choose a “first-time” brain surgeon? Me neither.) But how are you expected to build a portfolio of happy brides if no one wants to book you?
Well, unlike the classic chicken-and-egg problem, this one actually has a clear solution: you build a portfolio first. But instead of a gallery of glowing, paying brides, you’ll need to get creative.
Go Pro Bono
The most obvious way to get a handful of brides under your belt is to offer your services for free to people you’re close with and trust (and presumably, people who trust you to handle their big day). The most obvious people that fall into this category are friends and family, but don’t be afraid to expand your circle. Post a message on social media offering your services to anyone looking for a (steep) discount on wedding planning, and if your social circle is large enough, you’re bound to come across one or two couples that will soon be tying the knot.
Be sure to keep in close contact with the wedding photographer before, during, and after the wedding because he or she will be your generous source of those precious wedding photos you’ll need to show potential clients later on.
Build a Referral Network
Another reliable way to land clients early on is through networking with other vendors.
Attend industry networking events and set up coffee meet-and-greets with photographers, florists, DJs, and bands to introduce yourself and talk about why you would be an asset to their clients. It’s important to also be sure you are learning about those vendors and finding out who their ideal client is so that you can refer them down the line. I have had many vendors reach out to me asking to be referred to my clients, but the ones who tend to stick out are the people who first say they would like to see how we can be mutually beneficial to one another. Referrals are a two-way street, so be sure you acknowledge that in any conversations you have.
Spend time touring venues in your local area. Not only will this bring you to top of mind when their next client walks in, but it will also help you to feel confident in discussing details of a potential client’s venue. Simply telling a potential client that you know their venue well can provide them with peace of mind on top of being a great conversation starter.
Join a Styled Shoot
The first-hand experience and networking are helpful, but do not always give you access to website content to help build your portfolio content. A great way to get great photos of your work before you have paying clients is through Styled Shoots. A Styled Shoot is when a team of wedding professionals come together to arrange a vignette to be photographed. Come up with a design concept and assemble a team (florist, rentals, stationery, photographer, etc.) to bring the vision to life. Photos from the shoot can be used on your website or perhaps even submitted to a wedding blog for publication.
Another way to obtain images for your portfolio would be volunteering to be on the planning committee for a wedding industry non-profit like Wish Upon a Wedding. You won’t be paid, but the experience will be invaluable and it is a great resume builder to be able to say you were on the planning committee for a large-scale event.
Paid ads (like those on Google AdWords and Facebook) are another route to go if you’re struggling to build momentum organically. Each market is different so before you make a long-term commitment advertising on a magazine or blog, do your research. It is best to start with a short-term commitment and then reassess when you see how much business you have won because of the advertisement. Any online advertisement will link back to your website, so be sure you have a top-notch site before investing in paid advertising.
The Entrepreneur Question
Many people interested in the wedding planning industry are excited about the possibility of owning his or her own business. But that is certainly not the only way to pursue a career in wedding planning. I currently have a team of 4 other women who produce weddings on behalf of my company who are able to enjoy all the aspects of the job without the additional responsibilities of being a business owner. Below I have listed the pros and cons of owning your own wedding planning business, as well as some personality traits that may be an asset if you decide to become an entrepreneur.
Pro: All the glory! As a business owner the successes of your business–whether achieved by you personally or any member of your team–can be attributed to you, personally. All the hard work you put into the business benefits you directly. It can be incredibly exciting to see all of your labors come to fruition. Seeing all the hours you spent networking, marketing, selling, and event planning yield a successful wedding and a thrilled client is a high that cannot be described in words, and something that I enjoy over and over again. It never gets old!
Con: All the responsibility! The same can be said for any negative happenings in your business. If you have an unhappy client you are responsible regardless of whether you worked directly on their wedding or not. If an employee is unhappy or has an issue working with a vendor, ultimately you have to be the one to ensure everything is resolved amicably. You are responsible for the image your business has within your market and that can be incredibly exhausting at times.
Pro: You make your own schedule. As a business owner, you can decide what hours you are in the office, how many clients you want to take on, or even how to carve out time for an extra-long vacation or sabbatical. You can go to a work out class in the middle of the day or choose not to be in the office on a specific day of the week to be home with your kids. It’s all your choice and, as long as you communicate your hours to your clients it can be the ultimate flexible work schedule!
Con: Everything scheduled must go on. The flexible work schedule only functions if you can actually get all of the work done within the times you’ve set aside. If a client has an urgent need on your day off, you may need to take care of it or find another member of your team to manage the emergency or risk an unhappy client. I experienced this first-hand three separate times when my three daughters were born. There was no maternity leave for me! I carved out as much time as I could but, ultimately, the show had to go on and some things–like payroll or a client’s wedding day–just can’t be rescheduled.
Pro: Finances. An employee is paid for time they have spent working. An entrepreneur is paid for time they work–and also for time their employees are working! The old “make money while you sleep” adage can be true. When times are flush it can feel like the best decision you ever made to start your own business.
Con: Finances. The business owner is the first to be paid when money is coming in, but also the first to take the hit when things are tight. Didn’t have a great month? Your employees or contractors still need to be paid, the rent, credit cards, and utilities are still due (both in your business and personally). Especially as you are getting started, you may have a few months–or even years–during which your business is not making a profit, so it is something you will need to plan and save for to be sure you are not left in a bad situation.
Qualities of a Great Entrepreneur
In terms of personality traits that will help if you decide to take the plunge and start your own business, here are some qualities you’ll need to take on if your dream is to own your own wedding planning business:
Being Level Headed: It’s important not to let the little things ruffle your feathers. You may go from hearing a client gush about how absolutely perfect every last moment was one day, to an irate one shouting your ear off the next. If you can maintain a middle-of-the-road demeanor emotionally, it will help you stay sane.
Being Methodical: Aside from the day-to-day tasks of being an event planner, you are going to have a whole other job’s worth of duties just dealing with running the business: paying bills, running payroll, marketing your business, billing clients, etc. It’s important to create procedures that work for you so that you can stay on top of the day-to-day tasks while still providing great service to your clients.
Being a Leader: No, you don’t have to be a “born leader” or anything cliché like that, but you absolutely should be comfortable taking charge, making executive decisions, and generally taking an active approach to your work. This is sometimes an uncomfortable transition for someone used to taking orders from a higher-up. When you’re the boss, you are the higher-up.
Being Flexible: As an employee, finding work-life balance is usually pretty straightforward. You work a certain number of hours per week, you keep the work at work and your time at home is devoted to yourself and/or your family. As the owner of a wedding planning company, you’re practically on-call 24/7. That doesn’t mean you’re working around the clock, but it does mean you’ll require a lot of additional flexibility to make sure your business continues to run smoothly while everyone else is already “logged off.”
If you feel you are someone who loves the event planning aspect, but numbers make your head spin. Or you could write timelines all day but the idea of having to negotiate a pay raise with an employee isn’t for you then choosing to become an employee of another wedding planner may be the best fit. You can do what you love without dealing with the stuff you don’t.
The good news is, nothing is permanent. Deciding to start as someone’s employee does not mean that you can never start your own business. Or, if you start a business and find it is not for you, you always have the option to close your doors and decide to work for someone else. Life is a journey, and finding your perfect career path is a part of that!
A well-planned wedding is a marvel to behold: vendors scurrying to and fro, seating arrangements delicately configured, bridesmaids and groomsmen all in their proper places, and a glowing couple who feel confident enough in you to relax and take in the moment instead of worrying about micro-managing each detail of their special day. When a planner has done his or her job, it all looks seamless on the outside. But behind the scenes of a perfectly-planned wedding is months of preparation and countless conflicts that have been resolved ahead of time.
If you think you’re the right person to handle this enormous (and fun!) responsibility, there has never been a better time to become a wedding planner. Above all, remember that your primary and most sacred responsibility is to your engaged couple. Keep them glowing and your career as a wedding planner will follow suit.